Mozilla calls for action to remove platform browser lock-ins

“OCA can be used as a neutral term. There is nothing wrong with companies marketing their products. Mozilla reports that these marketing messages can be deceptive and used by powerful platforms to prevent consumers from switching to their associated browsers. This harms competition and ultimately consumers. Companies should have the freedom to create their own brands. However, branding that is controlled by negative OCA or where brands are promoted and built using harmful design techniques can lead to consumer harm .”

Mobile similitude and sludge

Mobile browsers are particularly sticky and susceptible to consumers not switching. Mozilla noted that the combination of factors such as pre-installation satisfaction and utility makes it less likely that consumers will seek out other mobile browsers that better meet their needs, align with them, or offer greater privacy and security.

” The experience of mobile browsers is basic and there is a perceived lack of differentiation between them, so the pre-installed browser on a device has a significant advantage,” the report states. This benefits the operating system, not necessarily the users. People are often reluctant to change to a new browser as they have become used to the browser they have. It takes cognitive effort to change from a pre-installed browser that has been conditioned over time. People put off making changes if they are too busy or confused. Many people find it easier to just keep the status quo, or postpone making a decision until later

The report also highlights a link between mobile and desktop browser use. Mozilla claims that nearly all Firefox users also use Firefox on their desktop computers.

” Our research has shown that less than 6% Americans use Firefox on their smartphones. This suggests that people who use Firefox on their desktop computers more often than others, are more likely to use that browser on their smartphone .”


This in turn implies that Microsoft’s aggressive promotion to Windows users of its browsing software — and particularly the anti-Firefox messaging — contributed to Firefox’s share in the mobile browser market.

But it is clear that there are many factors that make mobile competition difficult for indie browser developers. The report also highlights how mobile is more tightly managed and/or integrated than desktop OSes, making it difficult to compete in the space.

Google, for instance, has used contract restrictions with OEM partners in order to increase the number of Android devices with its own-brand services like Chrome preloaded. This is despite Android being open-source. The tech giant is now in antitrust trouble for some of these restrictions, such as the EU where it was forced to show a screen that promoted search engine rivals.

Consumer familiarity and comfort with Big Tech products can be a key factor in lock-ins. However, platforms might try to influence that outcome by over-selling integration benefits via suggestive messaging or by creating friction for alternative options.

” Our research has shown that consumers believe Chrome is the best browser for Android phones and that products made by the same company will work better together (e.g. Mozilla notes that Gmail will work more in Chrome than Chrome, and cites Google’s use such messaging in its “cross-product promotional” campaign as an example.

“It’s also closely tied to web compatibility issues, and the extent to that operating system providers restrict, or allow interoperability with third party browsers,” it continues. It also criticizes Apple’s ban on alternative browser engines from its App Store, which reduces differentiation when competing with Safari. Since rivals must also use Webkit (which has historically slowed their ability to compete, and continues to limit how much they can offer),

“Feature development remains at a standstill for alternative browsers on iOS because Apple — in control of both the browser engine and operating system — does not make available to rivals some of the necessary APIs and functionality, thereby limiting differentiation.”

Choice undermined

Mozilla’s reports also highlight instances when a user may not have chosen a different browser. This could happen when a platform makes a self-serving decision to resurface their browser. For example, after selecting text in iOS, the browser will open Safari web search results regardless of whether the user has selected Safari as their default browser. Or opening a web link from the Windows search bar icon, which opens Edge.

” This demonstration of OCA highlights some of the ways operating systems can choose their browsers and limit consumer choice. To protect consumers, lawmakers and policymakers have begun to crack down on deceptive practices in certain countries. Others have also taken steps to improve competition in digital markets by introducing regulations. Mozilla asserts that very few people have made the connection between these issues, and the importance browser competition. They also haven’t looked at OCA practices as a means to implement (or thwart), consumer choice and welfare.”

” We believe that people would be more inclined to use alternative browsers than the one they have been given. These possibilities have been blocked for years by online choice architectures and commercial practices that profit platforms, and are not in the best interests of consumers, developers, or the open internet. It is hard to underestimate the effects of years of self-preferencing, which has led to consumer choice being eroded. These practices .”

have also led to the loss of independent competitors, disruptive innovation, new products, features, and other products.

While Mozilla’s report doesn’t make any specific recommendations for regulatory intervention to force platforms “to do better for consumers and developers”, it does urge lawmakers to take action to stop “further harm for consumers from continued inaction or competitive stagnation”.

” Since these companies have failed to improve, regulators, policymakers, and lawmakers have spent considerable resources and time investigating digital markets. It suggests that they should be able to recognize the importance browser competition and act to prevent consumers being further hurt by inaction or stagnation.

” We ask them to enforce all laws, and any new laws or regulations that will soon be in force. We call on them to introduce new laws and regulations, and to highlight their importance to the future internet. This is a moment for lawmakers, policymakers, and regulators in many jurisdictions to make the internet a better place. Consumers and developers will benefit from real choice, innovation, and competition .

The EU has taken antitrust enforcement actions in relation to Google’s Android contract restrictions. This has resulted in a choice screen being made available to EU users — at least for the default search engine. Mozilla’s report dismisses existing solutions that feature online choice architecture and software design. It says: “The remedies that were deployed so far have had many limitations and have largely failed .”

This conclusion is supported by the fact that Google has not seen a significant shift in its market share in Europe for search on mobile — where it currently holds a 96.6% marketplace, which is only 0.3% less than 2018, when the Commission fined it $5BN and ordered it case infringing customers, Ecosia, a non-profit Google alternative recently pointed out.

Google rival DuckDuckGo also calls for regulators’ to go further in regulating choice-screen remedies. In recent years, DuckDuckGo argued that such tools must be able to provide a truly one-click’ experience and are essential if they want to move the needle against ingrained platform strength.

Jennifer Taylor Hodges from Mozilla’s U.S. policy commented on the limitations of current choice architecture remedies. She said: “OCA remedies must be carefully thought out, and transparently implemented. They should be developed in consultation with stakeholders and tested thoroughly. Data on their performance should also be shared. None of the screen options that were previously available would satisfy any of these requirements.

” The report highlights that there has been a lot of research on consumer behavior and more is being done. These market participants, academics, and experts should all have a voice in the development of OCA remedies

This report was updated with comments from Mozilla’s U.S policy